How Healthy Eaters Load Their Thanksgiving Plates

Thanksgiving is not a holiday for deprivation. Here’s how nutrition and fitness experts enjoy the feast without derailing their healthy diets.


Go ahead—splurge.

Photo by Roland Bello

If appetizers are your thing, grab a plate and fill up. No sense saving yourself for the main meal if turkey and trimmings leave you cold. “I tend to go overboard on the cheese and crackers beforehand,” says Emily Dingmann, of A Nutritionist Eats. “We always have an amazing cheese board and it's one of my favorite foods.” To balance her pre-meal indulgence, Dingmann fills her dinner plate with a healthy ¼ protein, ¼ starches (including squash), and ½ vegetables. “I’m always in charge of a kale dish, because no one trusts a nutritionist to bring the dessert!” jokes Dingmann, who brings her Simple Lemon Kale Salad every year. “It’s bright and acidic, and the perfect accompaniment to a heavy meal.”


Make it a three-meal day.

Wake up on Thanksgiving with the mindset that you’re having breakfast, lunch, and dinner that day, and you’ll be less likely to stuff yourself at the big meal, says Willow Jarosh, of C&J Nutrition. “I always eat breakfast and a snack early in the day,” says Jarosh. “We usually eat around 1 pm, so our Thanksgiving meal is like lunch. I also always plan to eat dinner, which mentally sets me up to leave the main Thanksgiving meal satisfied but not stuffed, so that I'll be hungry again by dinnertime.”


Earn the bird.

“I love planning a family hike or walk before all the fun food makes it’s way to the table,” says Elisha Villanueva, founder of fitness and wellness empowerment site Flex It Pink. “I call it our ‘earn the bird’ activity.” Moving during the day makes Villanueva feel better about indulging in her favorite three desserts later on: “Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple pie! I don't want to miss out on anything, so a little trio sampler will do.” While you won’t burn off all the calories from the meal no matter how many rounds of front-lawn football or neighborhood laps you log, there are other benefits to being active. Exercising before the meal puts you in the positive mindset to eat with an eye toward health, and exercising afterward can help banish that uncomfortably full feeling.


Get your flavor fix.

Fitness expert and ACE-certified health coach Jessica Matthews loves cranberries. What she does not love is all the sugar that goes into traditional cranberry sauce. So the assistant professor of health and science at San Diego’s Miramar College in San Diego found a way to get that sweet-tart punch onto her plate: “I can get the cranberry taste I love by adding just a few cranberries into braised greens like kale or Swiss chard,” she says. “That way I fill up on greens without guilt, and still enjoy a favorite Thanksgiving flavor.”


Make smart swaps.

Let’s be honest: Mashed potatoes’ appeal is more about the lush, smooth texture than any standout flavor. That—and the fact that they’re a perfect vehicle for gravy. So do what nutritionist Susan Dopart does, and serve pureed cauliflower instead. The cruciferous vegetable boasts six times the vitamin C, more than twice the fiber, and nearly twice the potassium of a standard spud—all with fewer carbs. “Plus,” says Dopart, “I actually think mashed cauliflower is tastier.” Dopart also makes a veggie- and whole grain-rich mushroom, squash, and wild rice dressing instead of a traditional bread stuffing.


Go back for seconds.

Nope, not a typo. You can fill your plate twice and still feel great, according to Kristy Del Coro, Senior Culinary Nutritionist for SPE Certified. “I look forward to a second helping at Thanksgiving,” Del Coro says proudly. She typically grabs a smaller plate (think salad plate, not dinner plate), then piles it with a little of each dish. “Vegetables first, then protein, then carbs—sweet potato or stuffing or a mixed casserole of some kind,” she explains. “By filling your plate with veggies first, you end up having less room for the more decadent items, but you still get to try them.” Once she’s sampled everything, Del Coro has time to think about what she’d like more of. “The reality of Thanksgiving is that it’s a nice, long drawn-out meal, so you can end up getting up again for more food.”


Eat your emotions.

Just this once, it’s ok to let nostalgia rule your appetite, says healthy-recipe developer Julie Hartigan, who has created hundreds of recipes for Weight Watchers, Bed Bath & Beyond, and other clients. “Thanksgiving is one of the biggest emotional eating situations, with so many traditional family dishes,” says Hartigan. “Don’t deprive yourself, just take reasonable portions.” Hartigan coaches her tween daughters to assemble a colorful plate with as many roasted and steamed veggies as possible, and a good amount of protein for satiety. But the whole family saves room for her dad’s legendary stuffing. “It’s killer,” she says. “It has sausages and walnuts… I’ll skip the mashed potatoes, but I can’t miss that stuffing.” Nostalgia rules at the dessert table, too. “If you look forward to Aunt Alice’s apple pie every year, let yourself have a slice,” she says. “Don’t go for the pumpkin pie because it has vitamin A—you’ll just be staring at the apple pie all night.”